Category Archives: Uncategorized

Exploring the Blue Mountains in Katoomba

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The smell of the sea air, the bright flora covering the grounds and trees I have never seen in my life made me want to just cry out of happiness. I had truly landed in OZ!

In a fluke of a travel opportunity that came to me when my ship was based out of Sydney I decided to take myself and also my carry on into an adventure in New South Wales, Australia. It was my first solo extravaganza in OZ and I was devoted to see and do as much as possible. Exploring Australia was a dream for me for a very long time. I can clearly recall sitting in the back of my world geography course in college studying the map of Australia while my professor was lecturing about the Great Barrier Reef. My listening was checked out for a bit as I pinpointed where Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, and Cairns were on the map. I was stunned to read about the aboriginals who still try to make a living in Darwin, around Cairns, and into the outback.

 

Heading to the Blue Mountains

With my sights set on exploring the Blue Mountains region I headed toward Sydney Central Train station to begin my journey. With a ticket booked from I was on my way to Katoomba out to explore the majestic Blue Mountains with serene and enchanting scenery outside my window. After snacking on Tim Tams and enjoying the Aussie accents around me my train arrived in Katoomba. Nested in the gateway of the Blue Mountains this cozy town has plenty of impressive cafes, restaurants, shops, and little nooks and crannies you just have to find for yourself. With my big map properly sprawled out and the best cappuccino in the world, I was making my plans.

Getting there

From Sydney Central head westbound to Katoomba. Katoomba is a place that is very easy to reach via Sydney and the sights there are sometimes compared to the Grand Canyon (just not as big). The town of Katoomba itself has some really nice bohemian style coffee shops, nice eateries, and a few Asian restaurants.

To completely enjoy the Blue Mountains region the best way to see everything is to purchase a hop on hop off ticket next to the train station upon arrival. I purchased the two day pass so I didn’t feel I had to squeeze it all into one day. There are more than a dozen stops with drop off points all around different hiking courses as well as little town centers to enjoy a bite to eat or some window shopping. From hiking around the Three Sisters to Leura Cascade Falls I was truly amazed by the incredible sights. Australia is such a fascinating continent that I hope I have to chance to explore more of one day.

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I really couldn’t have been more excited to be in Australia!

Oceania and beyond: Isle of Pines

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The more beaches I have the opportunity around the world to visit the more over development I see with my own eyes.

From the islands around the Caribbean such as Aruba and St. Maarten to Bali and Borocay, as much as I adore these destinations I still crave to soak in a piece of paradise that doesn’t have a lot of traffic and remnants from tourists. But if anyone were to ask me the best spot in the world for the best beach it would have to be Isle of Pines in New Caledonia. Off the southeast coast of Australia (about two sea days away) lies  the island nation of New Caledonia. French speaking New Caledonia offers breathtaking beaches around the island as well as smaller islands off the coast such is Lifou (the Loyalty Islands). As New Caledonia is not a common or known destination to many travelers it can still be reached by many cruise ships including Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean and P&O. As it is a fairly difficult and expensive place to get to on your own a cruise ship would be the most suitable way to visit.

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I visited Isle of Pines two years ago as my ship anchored into the bay. I truly felt swept away from society with a bit of curiously lingering. Truth be told I was blown away but the natural beauty, solitude, and the unsaturated footprints that tourists leave behind here. Pulling up to shore looking out the tender boat I witnessed a local man playing with a huge black and white striped water snake wrapped around a stick before letting it go into the sea. As my body cringed as it slipped away and began bobbing it’s head in and out of the surface I hoped I would never come face to face with one of those. With this sight leaving me feeling a bit queasy I began my journey exploring the wilderness of an island layered with towering pine trees lining the coast line sipping a young coconut.

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With gentle breezes swaying back and forth I staked my claim on the sandy shore and sat back to take in what I thought was some kind of dream. Isle Of Pines is a place that is mostly unknown to many travelers based on its location in Oceania. If you do however find yourself in Australia or New Zealand or are thinking of cruising in that part of the world, make sure that Isle of Pines is on your itinerary. There is simply no place like it on our planet Earth. I cannot compare it to any Caribbean island or paradise that is similar in some parts of Southeast Asia. The beaches are untouched. The locals selling coconuts are just as curious about you as you are about this place created by the heavens. I am a huge lover and fanatic about Isle of Pines and I hope that one day you are too!

Travel Guidelines in the Philippines

Mabuhay!

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Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental

If you love exotic beaches, landscapes that vary from the capital to the provinces, a cuisine with plenty of variety, and meeting very friendly locals who can speak English very well then maybe the Philippines is a place that is next on your list of destinations to visit. As the Philippines is a developing nation with plenty of resources and wonderful things happening in and around Manila the right precautions should be taken as with any place you plan to visit.

As I have spent about three months in the Philippines between all my visits combined I have seen many places near and far. From the Intramuros fortress in Manila to the rice terraces in Banaue, down to Chocolate Hills in Bohol, I am truly in love with all the sights in the Philippines. I believe that I have the authority to share my top tips of advice for the traveler interested in the Philippines because from first hand experience I know what expats are going to face when finding their way around the first time. And one piece of advice concerning my two favorite things you must try; buko (coconut) pie and lumpia(spring rolls). They are my favorite. Enjoy!
1. Travel with Local Currency
As you go on your journey around the Philippines it’s important to keep in mind that you really need local currency on you because outside of the big malls credit cards are not going to get you very far. Compared to other Asian destinations where paying with a credit card is everywhere like in South Korea where I recently traveled to, it’s better to know this now before you are in for a big surprise in the Philippines. When taking public transportation such as jeepneys, tricycles, and buses not only do you need pesos to pay but you need small change and even sometimes exact change to pay. You don’t want to be paying for a tricycle ride with a 1000 Peso bill. You especially don’t want to hand your jeepney driver 500 pesos when getting out to pay. Traveling with smaller bills is especially going to help you when you find yourself on Session Road at the Baguio Market paying for a bag of apples.
Unfortunately, there are so many thieves and pickpockets around so have small change on you preferably in an easy to reach purse or even in your front pocket. This happened to me when I was at the Baguio Market last month and the shop owner actually tipped me off saying how many pickpockets there are so better I have coins on me and small bills on me that I can easily reach to pay and go.
2. Watch your belongings
Like anywhere you travel to around the world you always want to keep your eye on your things. With the growth of terrorism more recently you especially don’t want to keep multiple bags unattended for a period of time. This itself could set you up for some trouble. You always want to use your common sense whenever you travel but make sure that your electronics and cash are literally in plain view so that you know where they are. Don’t leave behind your phone next to your meal and get up and go to the bathroom. Don’t walk around busy areas including malls and public markets with your phone or a large stash of cash in your back pocket. These are all basic safety measures to ensure that you are taking ownership and care to your possessions.
3. Taking Precaution when exchanging money
I was tipped off by my boyfriend and his sister in Robinsons Manila Mall that I could get the best exchange rate for my USD to PESO conversion. However, I received some tips that I want to pass on to the next traveler who may need this. Really, I mean really, keep an eye out when exchanging money in the malls and outside. You many not be aware of who is watching you to see where you go next after you just exchanged $500 and now you have 23,250 pHp on you. Be critically aware of your surroundings for real. Sometimes people get followed without any idea that they are being followed. Also when walking around Manila try not have a lot of cash on you because it’s really not safe. If you are planning on going for a walk to get some coffee or a meal in the mall or nearby, realistically you don’t even need 2,500 PhP on you. It’s better to have small denominations on you such as 20,50,100,500 so that the cashier can make change for you to make the payment paying smoother. Going to Starbucks? Just pay with your card.
4. The reason for carrying PhP cash on you as backup
I had been paying with pesos the whole time I was in Manila until I literally ran out and decided to use my credit card this one time to pay for my Vietnamese meal in the mall. I was having lunch at Pho Ha at Robinsons Otis in Paco, Manila when suddenly the electricity went off for about ten seconds. Taking my time slurping on my pho noodles and enjoying each bite I had no idea that the credit card machines went down and only cash was being accepted at this time. With only 40 php in my wallet I was about the get myself tied up in a mess.
I asked for the bill and took my credit card out. “Oh, I’m sorry ma’m we are only accepting cash at this time because the credit card machines are currently not working because of the electricity outage”. I didn’t even have the equivalent of $1 to pay for my meal. “Better you wait a while for them to work again,” my waiter explained. With no USD in my wallet to exchange upstairs I waited the first hour watching time pass. Finally I explained to the staff that I understand the situation and that I have no pesos to pay for my meal but I can’t wait all day for the machines to magically begin working again. “Ma’m we talked with our supervisor and it’s ok if you come back later or tomorrow to pay”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This has never happened to me before and I couldn’t believe that the entire staff was letting me “walk off” without paying while trusting me enough to come back. “My name is Alana. I am currently staying at Peninsula Gardens. You can find me there if you don’t see me by tomorrow afternoon”. Was I really just telling the restaurant my current address?
Owing the restaurant 700 php I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders to hurry the hell up and exchange my dollars at Robinsons Manila A.S.A.P. When I returned the next day with my receipt in hand and the exact amount to pay I swear, the staff looked so proud and relieved to see me with big smiles. I felt like I had proved to them and to myself that I am a trusting dignified human being and that I would never take off from a restaurant without paying them back. Words of advice, it’s always best to have local currency on you for the unexpected.

For more information on the Philippines check out my vlogs on Youtube where I cover the places I visited along with travel advice, and much more!

 

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Batad Rice Terrace; UNESCO World Heritage Site

Planning your safari

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Drums and drinks under the stars at Lake Malawi

A trip of a lifetime

It has been nine years since I was overlanding Sub-Saharan Africa with twelve strangers from Europe and those twenty four days spent were incredible experiences that taught me how to adapt and rough it out in nature. The sunsets overlooking a family of elephants along the bank of the Zambezi River are memories that are still vivid in my memory. The long nights sitting under the stars drinking rooibos tea and sharing our dreams are with friends that were once complete strangers to me. What I learned from what I saw taught me lessons that I will have for the rest of my life. TIA. (This is Africa).

I would go back on a safari in a heartbeat.

Do your research
Where do you want your safari to take you? What main sights do you want to see? Dying to see the big five in Kruger National Park? Curious to go off the beaten path and camp inside a game drive and wake up to lions roaring in the middle of the night? Head to Zambia for that along the Zambezi River. Want to wrap up your sightseeing with the spectacular Indian Ocean for whale watching, snorkeling, and relaxation beach time? Head to the coast of Mozambique.

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Elephant sighting along the Zambezi River

Choosing a safari is very overwhelming with many fine details to be mindful of and with so many tour operators to choose from the decision making seems endless. The best rule of thumb is to really narrow down and to finally make your decision by focusing on the content, not the frame. Make a detailed list of what it is you really want to see. Take a look at the countries you want to go to. Check out Drifters Tours (based in Johannesburg) which gives you the options of longer safaris as well as short tours.

I took an unforgettable 24 day safari which included South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique with the main highlights of Victoria Falls, Chobe National Falls, Mount Mulanje hike in Malawi, camping on Lake Malawi, and sleeping in beach bungalows in Inhambane, Mozambique. For shorter safaris around South Africa check out Nomad Tours that depart from a few different places in SA. I did a 7 day unforgettable Swaziland and Kruger Tour that blew my mind. With regular game drives, free time in our base camp in bee hive huts in Swaziland and night game drivers followed by campfires under the stars in Kruger, my time there was well spent while spotting the big five.

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South Africa

Get all immunizations
As malaria is common in Africa with all of the mosquitoes, talk to a specialist on the topic of proper malaria medicines you need and whether or not you need a yellow fever shot. Your safari operator may be able to give you some tools and advice as well. Two weeks before departing from Johannesburg for my safari I began taking malaria pills. These pills gave me wild and crazy dreams, not to mention deep sleeps where I slept like a rock for up to nine hours without waking up. It took a while for my body to adjust especially with the wild food cravings I started to have. Be sure to take your prescribed meds after meal as I learned this the hard way.

Pack in layers
Like anyone planning to take a once in a lifetime safari might think that because they are going to Africa it is going to be stiffing hot the whole trip, wrong. I took a 24 day safari in June and because southern Africa is in the southern hemisphere the climate is opposite of my summer back home in Connecticut. As the sun was strong during the daytime the evenings became very cool where many layers were needed as the nights became freezing in the bush. I can distinctively remember opening my suitcase in the middle of the night to find more sweaters and long shirts to layer myself with because I was that cold. Just know that evenings may be chilly depending on which country and time of the year you are traveling.
Put down your camera
Of course you want to take loads of pictures to share with your family and friends back home but after a while looking through a lens during a once in a lifetime moment doesn’t really capture the moment. After a few game drives I literally had to just put the camera down to truly be in the moment to establish my reality. Viewing a mommy elephant with her baby crossing a river together during sunset doesn’t do itself justice when you are more concerned about getting the best shot. I distinctly remember paddling in my canoe with my group along the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia with crocodiles sunbathing without moving an inch. To my left I watched a family of elephants playing in the water at sunset. In these moments I had to pinch myself, asking myself If I had died and gone to heaven and was looking down at this beauty, if I was dreaming this, or if yes, this was reality. You will reach a moment in time during your safari where you literally put away your camera and just sit an awe of what you are viewing. I sure hope this happens to you.
Once in a lifetime memories.

Final Words
Finally, with all the tips here to gain so that you can truly have a once in a lifetime safari don’t forget all of the great things to come. Whether you are doing a five night or twenty four night over landing safari tour you are bound to create beautiful friendships with those traveling with you from all over the world. Imagine yourself under the stars at night drinking a hot tea sharing your travel experience with those on your tour. I won’t forget those experiences and I’m sure you won’t either. As most travelers are open minded, get yourself ready to exchange contact details at the end of your safari with beautiful photos and memories that will last you a lifetime. Lastly, put down your camera and enjoy with your own pair of eyes the majestic wildlife and scenery around you.

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Dhow sailing into Mozambique

Volunteering in Taiwan: Dada School

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Interested in getting out and seeing a new country but wanting to volunteer and get involved in local culture and community at the same time? Do you like children? Are you interested in teaching English learning activities? Have you been to Asia yet? Not yet? How about Taiwan?

If you’re still reading this then I’m assuming you are looking for the nitty gritty behind getting here. Let me explain.Named by the Portuguese, Island Formusa, Taiwan lives up to it’s name with sensational landscapes, colorful and lively night markets filled with exotic treats, and very friendly people. A nation very different from mainland China and a place unlike any other Asian nation Taiwan is known for stinky tofu, the bettle nut beauties, it’s gorgeous eastern coastline, and the mighty gorges of Taroko National Park in Hualien. Taiwan has so much to offer the curious traveler whether it’s explores the concrete jungle capital of Taipei, getting lost in the night markets, or tasting the blends of tea that Taiwan is known for.

I was really interested in exploring more of Asia while volunteering in an Asian country.Taiwan had been on my mind for some time because I had a guide book sitting on my night stand for months just looking back at me. With the deep interest to explore exotic night markets, go hiking, and immerse myself in everything Taiwanese I knew I had to find a way to plan my trip there. Then I stumbled upon Dada School in Chungli, Taiwan online.

From the summer of 2011 through the fall of 2013 I have participated in their lovely program for students while also taking trips with them. I have assisted in their summer camps to the east coast of Taiwan all the way to Hualien down to camping in the southeast region of the island near Taitung. With three separate volunteer experiences here I want to share with you all that you need to know and why I love John and Ching and they teaching assistant Sonny, who brings the sunshine everyday. By the way, you can find more about Dada School from helpx.org.
WHAT: John and Ching operate an after school program (similar to Buxiban but better) where students from elementary to high school level come to learn and practice their English with international volunteers. Dinner is prepared at the school every evening by Chef Sonny and Ching with the help of volunteers to assist in cutting and preparing the meal. The food is seriously a delight, trust me on this one. With Ching’s high ability to prepare delicious meals without a recipe with your personal dietary needs in mind I don’t see how you could be disappointed with her cooking.

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Road trip down the east coast with the kids

WHERE: Located next to Linsen Elementary School in Chungli and a ten minute walk from Chungli Train Station, Dada School is in convenient and central location in Chungli. A two minute walk away is 7-11, a handful of tea shops, and a few sandwich breakfast shops that offer soya milk. The fresh market with local fruits and vegetables is less than a five minutes walk. Also there is a Watsons drug store where you can find all of your every day beauty and hygiene products that is less than a eight minute walk. In terms of finding snacks and every day needs, it is all a stones throw away.

ACCOMMODATION: An apartment located less than a five minutes walk from Dada School is provided for volunteers ( no cost). The apartment is two floors with four bedrooms and two bathrooms and a large open space living room. Please leave the apartment in the same way when you arrived. Trash can be taken to Dada School for disposal
VOLUNTEER: Some students are paired with volunteers for conversation class. Ching might ask you to help correct essays and homework. Helping clean up the kitchen area and preparation of meals may be asked. However, if you enjoy food prep and cleanup this may be up your alley.
EXPECT: Expect enriching life experiences that will change the way you view learning. Expect to assist helping children learn, delectable meals, and Taiwanese culture combined into a combination of experiences that will shape your life and change you forever (in a good way).

Taking the unplanned route: Thailand on my own

I knew that I always wanted to visit Thailand, it was just a matter of getting myself there and having a plan. I was in love with my favorite Thai restaurant back home, Bangkok, and because of my curiosity I knew that I would eventually find myself there sooner than later. Looking around at all the beautiful deco and photos that the restaurant owners carefully placed around the seating areas I knew that I would pick Thailand as my travel destination during my winter vacation after settling into South Korea.

Sidenote: I recently found out that the owners of Bangkok in Danbury, Connecticut who inspired me to take my first journey to Asia on my own died in an airplane crash in 2015. I want them to know that because of their restaurant I was deeply inspired and moved to venture to Thailand on my own.

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Na Muang Waterfalls, Koh Samui

Fast forward five months later and there I was on a bone chilling morning still dark outside finding my way through the underground in Seoul on my way to Incheon Airport. I was so ready to be in a warmer climate, eat the delicacies of Thailand, find myself in  night markets soaking in all of the culture in Bangkok, and enjoying a proper Thai massage. In the midst of my own excitement I had done little planning because this was my first trip traveling Asia by myself. Two years prior I had backpacked my way around South Africa on the Baz Bus from Jo-burg to Cape Town but planning was minimal because all I did was have to pick my accommodation from the guidebook and I would be dropped off door to door.
There was something so scary to me at first about traveling to Thailand by myself without a plan. I didn’t know the language, transportation system, most visited destinations, and I felt entirely self conscious and overly nervous about this adventure that I found myself in a panic on the plane. With only my first night booked at a highly recommended backpackers in Bangkok, I had no outside knowledge of where I would be traveling to next or how I would get there.

 

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After checking in and dropping off my luggage I was out on the town riding a tuktuk and enjoying local pad thai at a night market with a fresh mango smoothie. On Ko San Ro there was so much to take in. Lots of street eats, massage parlors, shopping, and more. My first night was cool to take in but I knew that I wanted to get out of the capital and discover beautiful beaches and scenery. With Christmas and New Years only days away I browsed for accommodation online and found that most places were sold out. With a little more last minute research on a whim I booked at I-bed in Ko Samui not knowing exactly how I would get myself there. Following the sketchy directions from the hostel desk workers I arrived on foot to a bus station that would take my first to Cha-Am then onto Ko Samui. I spent my four remaining days meeting really cool people at I-Bed, toured around the island visiting the waterfalls, and enjoyed as much curry and Thai food as my body could handle.

I want to say that I fell in love with Koh Samui at first sight. This island is lush, beautiful, and has gorgeous beaches. The Celebrity Millennium tenders in Koh Samui and I so deeply hope that one day soon I can work on that ship with the chance to return to my type of paradise.

The Island of Gods

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Bali was always place that I wanted to visit after reading Eat, Pray, Love (like three times). I can remember laying on my hammock and dreaming about getting lost in Bali. Eating lots of exotic fruits, making local friends, and thinking that my life would fall into place after discovering myself. I wasn’t drawn to Bali because I was recently divorced or experiencing a critical heartbreak in my life but my own curiosity was leading me to a place where I could disconnect and set my own pace for what I wanted to do. A calling in my life was leading me to The Island of Gods.

It was December of 2010 and I was sitting in front of my heating fan in Korea freezing like I was in the tundra. I had just purchased my flight to Denpasar and could not have felt more thrilled. I got down on my yoga mat in child’s pose with Balinese gamelan tunes softly playing in the background and was over the moon for my adventure to come.

Escaping the frigid conditions in Seoul I was on my flight to Denpasar, confident and in control of my second solo trip. My first impressions of Bali started in Sanur is a quiet homestay near the sea. A typical breakfast of fresh fruits, banana pancakes, and coffee next to the sea were waiting for me. I was in Bali.

A typical Balinese breakfast

Peace, solitude, and acceptance wrap up my understanding of how I felt about Bali based on my immersion in the little gem of Ubud. Morning yoga at run rise at the yoga barn,fresh fruits at the Ubud Market, and setting the trip at my own pace are what resonate with me when I reflect on my Balinese adventure. It was this trip that set my spark on fire to begin traveling alone and continuing on that journey around Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

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A five course Balinese cooking class in Ubud

Going solo

Did you know that Bali is one of the top solo destinations in the world? For the curious solo travelers, Bali is a unique destination that I always recommend. Why? Because it is so easy to navigate your way around this small enough island with more than enough to do in a one week getaway. With plenty of homestays on the island you can have your own room with breakfast included (banana pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee). Your homestay host can help you plan day tours and outings with the help of a local guide. In my case the homestay hosts were very helpful when helping me plan.

img_9190Don’t miss Ubud

The heart of Bali, Ubud, is a peaceful playground that attracts the kind of people who practice yoga, create and practice artist, and those who are curious enough to leave the popular sites like surfing spot Kuta Beach behind to discover a layer of Bali that you cannot experience in an expat playground such as Kuta.

Of course if you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you must be familiar with Ubud. Located in the center of the island surrounded by rice field terraces, lovely nature paths, monkey forest, and pleasurable dining venues and cafes this place has plenty of offer. You can’t miss Monkey Forest Road, a long strip with local shops, artists, bistros, and cafes. For those in wanderlust mode you won’t fall short of pleasurable things to enjoy, even if that means enjoying smoothie overlooking the rice fields.

Ubud is where I spent most of my time on the island. After settling in my first night there I realized that I wanted to slow down and explore as much as I could on foot and through some eco-tours. I didn’t want to run my self down touring the whole island with a short amount of time. Ubud will always hold a place in my heart.

 

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At a very beautiful temple near Ubud

The sunrise is one of the coolest sights that you can’t miss to get your day started in Ubud. I took an early morning yoga class at the Yoga Barn where our class overlooked the rice paddies at the sun rose over the treetops. Stretching and holding positions in silence at the Yoga Barn taught me to slow down and stay in the moment. It was truly mesmerizing. The beauty of this experience is one that I will always treasure.

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Why I would go back to Bali

Bali is so dear to me because it’s the first place that I traveled to alone where I felt at home. I felt at peace navigating my way around while I was in  search of beautiful spots to soak in. Away from the main drag of where expats like to hang out in and around Monkey Forest Road I always found myself on a long stretch of paths that led me to beautiful sunsets where I completely took in my surroundings of exotic flora, locals selling colorful fruit and it was here where I felt so lucky to witness what I had thought of the landscapes, a painting. For the curious traveler I hope that you day you too take home a piece of Bali for yourself.

Getting there

Getting to Bali means flying into Denpensar (DPS) and then navigating yourself around the island through a taxi, motorbike, or through the Perama Bus. I used the Perama bus as it was reliable and cheap transportation. For US citizens it is $35 visa on arrival. Make sure you have US dollars on you.

Getting Around

Points of interest such as Sanur, Ubud, Canidasa, Senggigi, Lovina, and Amed can all be reached by taking the Perama Bus. You can also hire a driver if there are places you want to see around the island.

Desk warming: The obligatory task of expats in Korea

 

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Situation A: My desk. Filled with photos of my dog. No class today.

An empty school. An empty parking lot. Maybe three teachers tops are presently at the school for the day processing paperwork and answering the photos for their “duty” day required of them in between semesters. And you, the foreigner are at your desk all day long trying to find anything that comes your way to pass the time more quickly. You know exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s desk warming!

I will never in my life be able to forget the long days filled with sitting at my desk when 99.9% of the time I was sitting alone in a bare unheated office asking myself over and over again why I had to be there in the first place and what on earth was the purpose of my existence in an empty school when I could be sitting in my apartment doing the same thing except in my pajamas but in front of my heating fan with a bowl of hot ramen to warm me up.

When you sign your contract to teach at a public school in South Korea you basically are signing your life away to many important tasks that you must fulfill in your duties and that does include desk warming. Desk warming are essentially days that can turn into weeks where you are required as per your contract to come to school like a regular school day except no children are there.

All of the school staff have to rotate this task as well whether it be three teachers a day sitting in the main office doing paperwork for the school and answering phone calls. You however, the dear foreigner, waygookin, most likely will be joining them in the main office watching them or alone in your office next to the English classroom. Be prepared to fulfill these duties as it is a requirement and there is no scurrying out of it. Following the standard code of Korean way does prove your “diligence” as it is however a very strange concept of wasting time.

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Situation B: An empty classroom. All students are at home.

My desk warming days were ones that I will never miss. They were filled with endless cups of hot tea and instant Korean coffees,munching on choco pies, googling “how to survive desk warming”, watching YOUTUBE videos on desk warming, writing emails to my foreign friends who were also desk warming and browsing through waygook.org creating forums with the title “why do I have to do desk warming?”
In the winter they were long miserable days where I dreamed of being on a warm tropical beach laughing at my empty and cold office and never looking back. My days were spent with all layers of my clothing on including my winter jacket, scarf, hat, and sometimes mittens because the pipes had frozen and the cold air was coming through the windows.
Looking back I laugh more at my desk warming disaster in the winter months because of how cold the school was and no matter how many layers I had on, I was still freezing. My body wasn’t very adaptable to the drastically cold temperatures of winters in the ROK.Drinking cup after cup of hot tea with honey to warm me up and slurping instant Korean noodles while drinking the steaming broth still could not warm my freezing body.
The only thing I can say to make you to make you feel better about your future of desk warming is that it will get better in the summer months because you will busy planning for summer camp while no classes are in session and usually your co-teachers will be planning the budget and outline of the camp. Oh, and you won’t be freezing! Instead, you will be snacking on Korean drinking yogurts, seasonal fruits, and ice creams to keep your body cool because Korean summers are very humid and sticky. Instead of freezing your buns off , you will be laughing back at yourself of your cold winter months at your desk with no kids. Good luck!

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Situation C: My entertainment on my walk back to my apartment

You can find more about how I spent my days desk warming here.

How to mend a broken heart: Dear Korea..

traditional-restaurant

Living in South Korea for three years of my life helped me evolve into the person I am today. A lot of memories were made.A lot of kimchi was eaten. I ate a ton of rice cakes on a daily basis. Yummy snacks appeared on my desk on a daily basis. When I told my close co-workers that I was cutting back on choco pies and rice cakes the treats mysteriously kept appearing. I explored every corner, crevice, city, province, that my guide book offered me in Korea. A lot of great people came into my life. A lot of great people left. A lot of visits were made at the swimming pool in Gumi to do laps where nobody would talk to me. I accepted that. I could ramble on and on of what I wish I was prepared for when I left Korea for life back in the USA.

I wish somebody told me that it was going to be hard. That not everybody would want to hear my endless stories. Stories about kimchi. Stories about my coteachers. Stories about how cool the public transportation system is all around the peninsula. Stories about he time I toured the DMZ- the most heavily protected borders in the world. Stories about all the cool cafes in Seoul including Hello Kitty in Hongdae. Stories about the moments that made me into who I am today based on the coolness I experienced.

I wish I was prepared to know that my pictures didn’t justify what I really experienced. That talking about my travels would be compared in translation to someones weekend at home at the bar or a birthday celebration. That I was going to feel extremely confused and sad sometimes. That I was going to feel at times that something in my life had died. That finding Korean food at home was going to pretty hard and non existent basically. That my chopstick skills didn’t impress everyone. That my thoughts would be consumed with my experiences and tales in Korea.

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That I was going to miss Korea for a long time. That I would still be talking about Korea almost every day until that day I would visit three years later. That soondubu jiggae would be my favorite food and I would long for yummy korean snacks that I could not find at home. That choco pies became my go to comfort food. That on cold winter nights back home I would be longing for Korean ramen.

I wish someone had told me that I was going to feel disconnected from the place that I grew up. That I would constantly compare South Korea to the United States.That I would always wish and talk about how great the public transportation is in South Korea and how I didn’t need a car when I lived there. That the healthcare system in Korea was awesome and seeing a doctor cost me $3 compared to the crazy $100 co-pay to see a doctor back home.  That I would love and embrace Korean strangers. That at any chance I could get I could try to talk to a Korean person and share with them how much I love Korea and that I lived there for three years and ask them if they had ever had the chance to travel to Dokdo and Ulleung Island like i had.

dinner

Moving forward hasn’t been easy. At the beginning stages of initially leaving Korea it felt as if I was mourning a death of something so dear to me that I lost.However after a recent visit I made finally with South Korea, it really opened my eyes to how much of the world I have seen in the past three years and how much Korea has not changed. Of course I think I am not as homesick for Korea these days. It is not Korea I long for as a place now. Instead what I miss are the people who made my life better and showed me how to be a good friend and taught me how to learn to enjoy Korea. What I know now is that I will always have love for Korea and Korean people. That dried seaweed, bibimbap, chamchi kimbap, and soon dubu jiggae will always be my favorite Korean comfort foods. What I do know now is that Korea will always be there and I can always visit. It is a place I can always return to in the case that I need a reminder of how great I had it there.

Life in the countryside of South Korea with EPIK

Moving to the middle of nowhere

Adjusting to the countryside in Korea was a process that took me many months to make work for me. When I was placed in Angye-myeong in Uiseong country in the province of Gyeongbuk in October of 2010 I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. When I applied to EPIK through Reach to Teach recruiting I didn’t specifically state whereexactly I wanted to lived. I thought I would be happy living anywhere in Korea.

Upon getting placed and settling into my new apartment my friends in bigger cities were enjoying meals together after work at Mr. Pizza, going to the movies together on Friday nights, and coffee meet ups at Sleepless in Seattle on Tuesdays while I felt stuck in rice paddie land searching for the reason why I was placed in my tiny town in the first place.

Reasoning with myself

One of my first weekends after I had settled in I took the bus up to Seoul to drown myself in all things foreign and wonderful; coffee shops galore, kebabs and Indian curries in Itaewon, endless shopping in  Myeongdong with bright lights and music pumping, and enjoying the subway rides around the city. I loved Seoul but the idea of taking the bus back to Anyge (three and a half hours southeast) sounded unbearable.I was drowning  myself in all the wonderful things that Korea afforded me and returning to the quiet town of Angye made me feel resentful.

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A really nice girl who I know through a friend invited me out with her friends for Thanksgiving celebration in Seoul. Most of the teachers were teaching at hagwons around the city and were super cool. I couldn’t help but feel completely sorry for myself and feeling quite miserable for the place I had to return to on Sunday night as they all talked about the cool places they were discovering around Seoul and how they spent their free time after work.  What was there for me back in Angye? What on earth was the point of a year in the land of makkoli, rice, and a whole lot of nothing?

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Angye (from the rice fields)

Tami became my sounding board and gave me some advice that stuck with me.As I look back six years later this was exactly what I needed to hear. “Focus on your goals for the next year of your life. You are going to save so much money by living there. Learn more about Korean culture and immerse yourself. You can always come to Seoul on the weekends.”

The next morning on my walk to school those words stuck with me over and over again in the back of my mind as I walked past the locals who were practically now my neighbors.
With a new goal in mind that I had to set for myself I had to learn how to adjust and try to enjoy my placement. I had to learn how to get comfortable spending a lot of time on my own during the week. I had to immerse myself in what I did have in my town; places to go for quiet walks to reflect, trying and discovering local restaurants, and making friends with those who lived around me.

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Angye, Gyeongbuk Province, South Korea

Deciding to enjoy my time

First thing I began doing was getting to know my local community. I started learning names of the bank tellers, pharmacists in our only pharmacy in town, and exploring the restaurant scene that offered only Korean fare.During the cold winter months in my first contract I became friendly with one of the restaurant owners who offered me a free Korean dinner if I tutored his daughter for an hour in English. She was very shy but her parents really wanted her to learn English from a foreigner. For about a month plenty of side dishes and bibimbap was waiting for me on the table and I couldn’t believe that all of that food for for me. I started to realize that as humble an offer as this was it wasn’t worth my time to sit for an hour with the owners daughter who wasn’t interested in learning in the first place and me talking to her. Nevertheless, that was worth the experience though.
Passing by a large chicken coup one day I spotted a beautiful dog who started following me to school one day and back to my apartment after passing by the shop. I soon fell in love with this beautiful creature. The obstacle of not being able to converse with the owner all seemed to fade away because she accepted me and seemed to enjoy my company. She was a widow and always invited me in especially during the cold winter months. Soon to follow however was to find out after being home on vacation in the USA for a month was that this animal friend of mine was run over by a car. I will always remember the kindness and commitment to sticking by me that this creature showed me.

img_1480Acceptance is key
Being immersed in my local community familiarized me with all I had to be thankful for. As small as Angye was I held deep gratitude for a safe community where locals recognized me and invited me often to share a snack. One afternoon walking through the local market after work I heard my name being called through the crowd. I turned around and one of my students had a big box of strawberries for me. “This is for you, teacher.” I will never forget how that moment made me feel and I will carry it with me forever. Sometimes in our lives we are called to do something we aren’t ready for and unwilling to accept. Find the quiet time when you are called and accept it graciously.